“This was like a dream come true,” said a radiant Sossi Mohamed Sadek, a Tunisian second year engineering student who was one of the hundreds of local volunteers at the World Social Forum in Tunis. “To see our university overflowing with over 50,000 people from Africa, Europe, Latin America, the United States, the Middle East—it was extraordinary. I came away with new ideas and new friends that will surely have a great impact on my life.”
Many Tunisians were thrilled to have hosted the eleventh World Social Forum, held from March 26-30, 2013. It marked the first time that the world’s largest global gathering of progressives—a gathering born in Brazil in 2001 out of the protests against corporate-dominated globalization—took place in an Arab nation. It came at a time when the world has been rocked by grassroots uprisings in the Arab world, but also increasing mobilizations to counter the climate crisis, and massive economic protests from southern Europe to “Occupy” groups in the United States to student movements from Quebec to Chile.
In recognition of the overarching danger of climate chaos, this was the first Social Forum to have a dedicated “Climate Space” with ongoing discussions about issues such as the need for food sovereignty, water justice and respect for the rights of indigenous and forest peoples. The climate sessions also denounced false solutions being put forward by many governments and corporations, including biofuels, GMO crops and geoengineering.
The debt/trade section of the Forum focused on ways to counter austerity measures, destructive free trade agreements and the onerous debts imposed by banks on both governments and individuals. Participants searched for alternatives to the undemocratic economic reforms being pushed by international lenders in countries such as Italy, Greece, and Cyprus, but also in Tunisia and Egypt, where the people are being asked to pay for debts incurred by previous dictators.
Interspersed throughout the forum’s hundreds of workshops, dozens of assemblies and street rallies were the challenges, contradictions and unresolved clashing visions since the early heady days of the Arab Spring.
One of the contradictions involves the role of women. The Arab Spring has spawned a new women’s movement in response to the rise of conservative religious governments in the region. According to Forum organizers, that’s why a women’s assembly was chosen to open the Forum. “The new regimes want constitutions to be more religious, and women all over the region are taking a stand against this,” said Hamouda Soubhi from Morocco. In the raucous, jam-packed women’s assembly, women cheered, chanted and applauded their sisters standing up to male oppression. “When we have situations like in Egypt where women are raped while attending demonstrations, we obviously have unfinished revolutions and need this kind of gathering to re-inspire us,” said a beaming, young Egyptian activist.
This clash between Islamists and secularists in the Arab world was present throughout the Forum. Plastered on the walls was the photo of Chokri Belaid, a Tunisian lawyer, Marxist, and leader of the leftist Popular Front who was murdered in February. Many Tunisian leftists used the Forum to denounce the new government run by the Ennahda party. But government supporters insisted that Ennahda is a moderate, tolerant Islamist party and felt that the secular vision was overrepresented at the Forum. At one of the closing assemblies, a government supporter encouraged forum goers to talk directly to Ennahda members instead of simply talking about them.
But it was the conflict in Syria that really spilled over into the forum in an ugly way, with supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shouting down and beating up opposition supporters—even women. Rumor had it that the Assad government purposely sent provocateurs to the forum. The atmosphere was so explosive that a group wanting to discuss nonviolent alternatives in Syria felt compelled to leave campus and meet instead in a downtown hotel.
Other conflicts highlighted at the forum were the Palestinian struggle and the lesser-known 37-year-old liberation struggle of the people of Western Sahara, now occupied by Morocco. There were several confrontations at the Forum on this issue as well, when Moroccan government supporters—at workshops and on stage at a plenary—attempted to shout down (and on one occasion punch) the independence activists.
Given the life-and-death struggles in the region, coupled with government infiltrators and agitators, organizers were proud that they managed to calm tensions internally, without ever having to call the police, and that no one was seriously hurt.
At one of the closing gatherings, participants were asked to evaluate the forum. Many of the criticisms were about poor planning and logistics: 20 percent of the hundreds of workshops never took place; locations were hard to find and there were scores of last minute room changes; nothing started on time; translation equipment rarely worked; speakers spoke too long, leaving no time for discussion.
Some complained that for a forum that is supposed to pose alternatives, the sessions are old-fashioned “talking heads” instead of interactive. US environmental activist William Kramer said, “I’m used to more participatory processes, not just presentations. For me, it was really the spaces between events where I learned the most.” Some of the younger folks, including US participants from the Occupy movement, created their own democratic space to have an open dialogue with Tunisians.
Other criticisms were about lack of concrete solutions. The larger assemblies often turned into simply denunciations of corporations, governments and capitalism. “If slogans could win,” said one participant, “the left would be in power. Chanting ‘smash capitalism’ might make us feel good, but it doesn’t provide a path forward.”
Others wanted more global actions to emerge from the summit, not simply statements. Past forums have led to critical global actions, such as the February 15, 2002 global day of protests against the pending US invasion of Iraq, or joint campaigns to stop international free trade agreements. At this forum, groups working on different issues came up with new networks and joint campaigns—for example, the anti-drone workshop was attended by people from 15 countries who decided to form a global anti-drones network—but there was no call for a particular global action coming from the Forum as a whole.
When asked if the forums should continue, there was unanimous support. “Where else could we possibly come together like this and inspire each other to create another world?” said Eyad Bilad, a Tunisian student. Evoking the name of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire, triggering the events that led to the Arab Spring, he added, “For all those who have died struggling for justice, we must continue to learn from each other how to build a world that does not respond to the greed of dictators, bankers or corporations, but to the needs of simple people like Mohamed Bouazizi.”
Medea Benjamin (firstname.lastname@example.org), cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. Her previous books include Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart., and (with Jodie Evans) Stop the Next War Now (Inner Ocean Action Guide).